Aviation History


“One white hat laid into me, calling me ‘Captain Messerschmitt.’ I thought it had to do with my German name. ‘Not exactly,’ he corrected, maintaining that it was actually my nickname among the ‘mechs’ because whenever I flew, I brought the A-7E back filthy from shooting the gun,” Capt. Ralph Wetterhahn USAF exchange with VA-146 Blue Diamonds

The A-7 Corsair II was built by Vought as a replacement for the legendary A-4 Skyhawk, but while the latter aeroplane represented the most simple, basic approach to lifting a wide variety of ordnance from an aircraft carrier, the SLUF (Short, Little. Ugly, Fucker as the A-7 was nicknamed by her aircrews) evolved into arguably the most successful tactical jet bomber of the Vietnam Conflict.

The definitive version of the Corsair II for the U.S. Navy was the A-7E, which thanks to her endurance, accuracy and a suite of weaponry became a favourite with Forward Air Controllers (FACs) during the Southeast Asia War.

The U.S. Navy developed the A-7E from the U.S. Air Force’s A-7D, which offered a much more powerful engine and a completely new generation of avionics. Replacing the disappointing Pratt & Whitney TF30 with the Allison TF41 increased the power of the A-7B by nearly 3000 lbs of thrust, an impressive and advantageous alteration. The A-7E also replaced the original two troublesome 20 mm Colt Mk 12 cannon with one General Electric M61A1 Vulcan, which featured a highly reliable six-barrel arrangement similar to the Gatling gun of the 19th century. The cannon’s ammunition count was also increased from just over 650 rounds total to 1000 rounds.

However as explained by Norman Birzer and Peter Mersky in their book U.S. Navy A-7 Corsair II Units of the Vietnam War, to many Navy Corsair II drivers, the Vulcan gun was a neat toy, but as it turned out, they did not use it a lot in combat mainly because there were not enough appropriate targets.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-7E Corsair II VA-86 Sidewinders, AJ400 / 159292 / 1977

Even FACs were somewhat reluctant to let eager A-7 aviators make strafing runs if the situation did not warrant it. By contrast USAF Capt. Ralph Wetterhahn (who as a first lieutenant shot down a MiG-21 during Operation Bolo and who later became a successful author) that served an exchange tour with VA-146 “Blue Diamonds” in 1970 loved to shoot the A-7E’s cannon, which did not endear him to his groundcrew.

During an off-duty foray into a bar in the fabled serviceman’s delight known as Olongapo City, in the Philippines, Wetterhahn was accosted by a plane captain (the enlisted man in charge of a specific aircraft in the squadron). “We all got merrily inebriated, and one white hat laid into me, calling me ‘Captain Messerschmitt.’ I thought it had to do with my German name. ‘Not exactly,’ he corrected, maintaining that it was actually my nickname among the ‘mechs’ because whenever I flew, I brought the aeroplane back filthy from shooting the gun. I usually did fire the M61, particularly at night. On one occasion, maintenance wanted the ammo can emptied for some reason, and boy did I accommodate. All 1000 rounds… “zzziiip!’ The cordite would stick to the belly, and being corrosive, it had to be cleaned off before salt spray got to it.

“I had figured out a way to drop bombs, then open up with the Gatling gun during pullout – a tactic designed to keep AAA heads low while I cleared the area. Truth be known, I just loved to shoot the gun. ‘The AAA gunners can see your muzzle blast at night an hose you’, another aviator told me. ‘Heck, they see the whole aeroplane the whole time during the day and miss,’ I retorted, “so because they see a two-second burst at night, they’ll suddenly get more accurate?’

“But that wasn’t the plane captain’s point. He and his fellow PCs had to clean the cordite off the A-7. ‘It’s a real pain, Captain Messerschmitt!’ ‘Fine,’ I told him. ‘Next time I fly, I’ll clean the damn thing myself!’

“Two weeks later, back on the line, I caught a night mission with six Mk 83s and a full load of 20 ‘mike-mike.’ Needless to say, the aeroplane came back with a black belly. After the A-7 was chained down, I noticed the PC looking underneath, a look of disgust on his face. ‘Don’t touch it,’ I said. ‘Get what you need to clean it at dawn and wait for me.’

“I went to debrief and hit the sack for about two hours, then groggily stumbled up to the flight deck. There must have been 200 sailors gathered around that A-7 when I showed up. I grabbed the gunk can and a pile of rags, slid under the fuselage and started applying the cleaning solvent. Cameras flashed like a 57 mm gun battery in the heat.

“I was halfway to the tail, and fully appreciative of the work involved, when the plane captain slid next to me and took the rag. ‘Never thought I’d ever see an officer do this. I’ll take over – and another thing. Shoot the gun any time.”

Commenting on this episode, Wetterhahn concluded observing that his Navy compatriots did not use the gun as much as he did.

“Mostly, when we had mission in South Vietnam, we used it. In Laos, generally the bombs did the work, so strafing was required. Also, you had to get pretty close to be effective, putting yourself in the heart of the AAA envelope. I strafed high, the rounds hitting the ground in front of the area where I was pulling out.”

Photo credit: skyhawkpc (flickr) via hiveminer.com, screenshot from YouTube video and Lt. Graves / U.S. Navy

Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • I flew with Colonel Wetterhahn in Thailand in 88 to 91 for the embassy. Great pilot and a great leader, bringing the F-16 to the Royal Thai Air Force.

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